Boosting Home and Heart – Obama's Vision for a United Front

How will Barack Obama's inauguration affect the military's role in US homeland security? Paul French investigates.


One of Barack Obama's first tasks as US president will be to address a homeland security strategy, current flaws of which include porous borders, ineffectual response to natural disaster and vulnerability to terrorist attack. And as part of his campaign leading up to election, Obama has already made some big promises to enact change, especially when it comes to the relations between defence and homeland security.

"The first responsibility of any president is to protect the American people," he said via his campaign website in the run up to the 2008 election. "Yet, seven years after the 11 September attacks, we are not as safe as we can and should be. As president, [I] will provide the leadership and strategies to strengthen our security at home."

But can the new president really deliver a complete package that not only increases military pressure in areas where it is seen to be required, such as Afghanistan, but also boosts cultural and social exchange with groups such as terrorists using civilian tactics? One man who should know is Peter Feaver, director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, professor of political science at Duke University and a member of Bill Clinton and George W Bush's security staff.

"One of Barack Obama's first major tasks as US president will be to address a homeland security strategy."

"Every successful presidential candidate finds that he has promised more than he can deliver, and Obama is likely to be no exception," he says. "He promised very dramatic change across the board in the security arena and he certainly will be able to change some things. But the actions he will find most doable are the ones that are a basic continuation of the policy lines already laid out by the Bush administration, including: increasing the size of the army, slowly withdrawing most, but not all, troops from Iraq, putting extra troops in Afghanistan and deepening cooperation between military and civilian organisations. All of these were already on the table under Bush and should be, in some form, achievable."

The best-laid plans...

Threats to President Obama's plans are likely to come in the form of a shrinking defence budget and a possible collision course with senior military officers who want more control of operations in Iraq, which flies in the face of his pre-election statements in which he suggested he would take the lead role.

"There are very tough choices on the horizon in the defence budget," Feaver says. "It is not possible to do all of the modernisation that the military has said it needs with the money planned in the budget. There may be some savings as the Iraq war winds down but not enough to bridge the fiscal gaps, and the Afghan conflict is ramping up so that will cost more," notes Feaver.

"President Obama would have a civil-military problem if he stuck to the more extreme promises he made while campaigning. But since the transition, he has signalled that he wants to govern in a more responsible fashion that sticks closer to the middle on security questions. If he continues along that path, he will likely avoid the civil-military friction he might otherwise have encountered."

So what exactly does Obama expect to serve up in terms of defence and homeland security?

Building a bigger army

Initial intelligence suggests that President Obama will pursue a more integrated vision for homeland security and counter-terrorism than the US enjoys at present, based on a combination of offensive political and military strategies and response-based defensive protection methods.

"Every successful presidential candidate finds that he has promised more than he can deliver, and Obama is likely to be no exception."

Key to the offensive arm of his homeland security plan will be increasing the size of the army by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 marines, giving troops access to better training and furnishing them with better equipment with which to tackle insurgents.

"Obama will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a threat to America," according to his campaign website. "Obama will ensure that our military becomes more stealthy, agile, and lethal in its ability to capture or kill terrorists. He will bolster our military's ability to speak different languages, navigate different cultures, and coordinate complex missions with our civilian agencies," says Feaver.

One of the main tenets of President Obama's homeland security strategy will be securing a better regard for the US overseas.

As a consequence of this, and his belief that US troops would be better deployed elsewhere, he has pledged to give defence and military generals a new mission: ending the war in Iraq.

"We have spent billions of dollars, lost thousands of lives," he said during a Democratic debate in January 2008. "Thousands more have been maimed and injured as a consequence and are going to have difficulty putting their lives back together again. This has undermined our security. In the meantime, Afghanistan has slid into more chaos than existed before we went into Iraq."

In a bid to root out Osama bin Laden and prevent terrorism coming back to US shores, President Obama will send at least two extra combat brigades, special operational forces and $1bn in additional non-military aid to what he calls 'the right battleground' in Afghanistan.

"The Afghan government needs to do more but we have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent here in Afghanistan," he told CNN in July last year. "And I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism. I think one of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here. We got distracted by Iraq."

Combining military with civilian defence

As previously mentioned, President Obama wants the military to work more closely with civilian organisations as part of a newly formed network of mobile development teams. He says he believes that the fight against Islamic fundamentalists can be overcome by fully integrating US government efforts in counter-terror, state building and post-conflict operations.

"There are very tough choices on the horizon in the defence budget."

"Thwarting terrorist networks requires international partnerships in military, intelligence, law enforcement, financial transactions, border controls, and transportation security," says his campaign website. "To make diplomacy more effective, Obama will stop shuttering consulates and start opening them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world. He will expand our foreign service and develop the capacity of our civilian aid workers to work alongside the military."

If he manages to negotiate a path through the budgetary and political maze, President Obama's planned changes will increase the role of the army in US homeland security and improve its chances of doing the job successfully. But will these measures, ultimately, help make US citizens safer than they are now?

"The country faces very serious challenges across many fronts, including the military and security front," Feaver says. "President Obama has set high expectations and will need to live up to those expectations to successfully deal with all of these challenges. Americans are tired of the partisan strife that characterised recent years and are rooting for him to succeed. If he governs wisely, he has the chance to go down in history as a great president."